What have we learned from all of those dark nights, and will anything have changed now that the lights are coming on again? These are the definitive questions of this odd moment, as theater begins its piecemeal reopening. “Worlds Fair Inn,” a new play at Axis Theater Company, offers one deflating response: nothing.
At first, of course, a few differences manifest. Like the temperature check at the ticket taker’s table or the spacing between the seats in Axis’s dim, subterranean space. But “Worlds Fair Inn,” a neo-Gothic frippery that runs a brief but somehow labored 50 minutes, could have played at any time in the past two decades since Axis opened its doors.
Written and directed by Randy Sharp, the artistic director of Axis, the piece takes obvious inspiration from the exploits of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, who carried out his murders in a building colloquially known as the World’s Fair Hotel. (Some of the victims were attendees of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The program mentions that the show is equally indebted to the exploits of the atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. That part doesn’t come through.
Sharp gives Holmes’s lurid story an absurdist spin. Three men, dressed like punk-rock versions of Buster Keaton, meet on a stage crowded with whiskey bottles. One of them, Frank (Brian Barnhart), announces a plan to build a hotel to house fair attendees. The other two (George Demas and Jon McCormick) sign on as builders and accomplices. Eventually they lure a man and a woman (Edgar Oliver and Britt Genelin) to the check-in desk, murdering them and then mutilating and reanimating their corpses.
Despite its historical sources, the show gives little sense of time or place — or plot or character, for that matter. The dialogue bumbles, though there are a few odd felicities, like Frank’s habit of pronouncing “fair” as “fire” and a lone, lame joke. “So you would do whatever I say even if it goes against your beliefs as a human being?” Frank asks his new colleagues. “I’m a contractor,” one says, by way of assent.
This play, like many of Axis’s productions, mostly serves as a pretext for David Zeffren’s tenebrous lighting and Paul Carbonara’s ominous sound design. Though the show concerns interior spaces, “Worlds Fair Inn” never gestures to how long many of us spent inside over the past year. And those of us who want a theater that believes in diversity and equity are likely to find the show’s seemingly all-white cast discouraging. While it feels like a miracle to be allowed sit down in a theater again, program in hand and live actors onstage, that wonder ebbs.
Still, what a treat to spend a little time with Oliver. He is an absolutely sui generis actor who resembles nothing so much as an Edgar Allan Poe short story made flesh. (If it matters, I once rode the B67 bus with him and his offstage manner is equally, wonderfully sepulchral.)
His character isn’t onstage for very long, though the moments passed with him provide their own peculiar pleasure. Even as we hope that theater will return much more engaged and brave and dynamic and diverse, how nice to see a strange and familiar face.
Worlds Fair Inn
Through June 19 at the Axis Theater, Manhattan; axiscompany.org.